Muir Seminar, Day Two: Learning to Walk

By | 2016-09-27

My first night in the cabin was fairly restless.  Efforts to make something resembling a pillow from my parka and other assorted clothes proved largely unsuccessful, so I was unable to assume my usual side-sleeper position.  Efforts to drown out others’ snoring with my iPod proved similarly fruitless—I remain convinced that someone in the cabin has emphysema and is in need of medical attention.

With my body still on Eastern time, sleeping until quiet hours ended at 07:00 was a non-starter.  I awoke frequently from 03:00 onwards, continually forcing myself to sleep until that was no longer practical.  By 06:30, I was outside awaiting the sunrise.  Others from the hut soon followed suit.

The guides arrived at 08:00 with hot water.  I had packed a mixture of instant coffee and chocolate protein powder with the goal of making something akin to a breakfast mocha.  Unfortunately, my chosen protein immediately congealed upon contact with hot water, making for a gloopy mess.  Guess I should have tested that one at home.

The group convened outside around 09:30 to begin the day’s lessons.  First up: how to walk with an ice axe.  Yep, there’s a right way to do that (axe in the uphill hand, pick pointed backwards).  As part of the lesson, we were also taught proper foot placement in varying snow conditions and terrains.  This mountaineering isn’t as straightforward as just hiking uphill!

With our walking lessons complete, we moved on to ice axe arrest.  To my surprise and delight, neither I nor any of the team was accidentally impaled or otherwise injured during this exercise.  And it really is exercise.  There’s a marked amount of effort required to hold oneself in the arrest position for an extended period.  Shoulders, arms, hips, and legs are all under strain, and it’s not as though you can just take a break when you get sore—in a real arrest situation, someone’s life is on the line.

After an hour or so of repeatedly throwing ourselves to the ground, it was time to eat.  My lunch plans for the week involved a variety of pre-made peanut butter bagel sandwiches.  I figured they were sufficiently rugged and calorie-dense to sustain me and withstand being shoved in a bag.  What I hadn’t figured on is how hard and dense they would become in the mountain cold.  I may have burned half the calories just trying to bite through and chew them.  Still, they did the trick.

After lunch, it was again time to learn to walk, this time with crampons.  Crampons are a necessity to securely travel on snow and ice, providing much-needed traction in an inherently slippery environment.  They are also great at tearing pants and damaging ropes, so you can’t just move around willy nilly.  You’ve got to keep your wits about you.  And walk like a cowboy, legs wide apart.

With everyone geared up, we got in a conga line and made our first foray onto the Cowlitz Glacier.  We repeated our earlier walking lessons, now with added traction!  Up and down hills, switching ice axe from side to side.  Back and forth across the glacier, careful not to trip or tangle our crampons in one another.

My feet are starting to hurt.  And I’ve already snagged my gaiters a few times.  Oh well, we’ll be done soon.  What, we’re trekking completely across the glacier?  And up the ridge?  Oh.  Great.

By the time we got back to camp, my feet really hurt, hurt like hell.  As in “I’m not sure I can do this again” hurt.  I quickly removed my boots and threw on camp shoes.  I scrounged some Advil from my friend.  I tried to elevate my feet.  And I hoped things would be better by tomorrow…



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